The Houston Astros present a dilemma as the American League Championship Series gets underway Sunday in San Diego.
The core of their lineup — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, Josh Reddick, and George Springer — were prominent members of the 2017 World Series championship team that put together an elaborate scheme to steal signs and didn’t get punished after it was exposed earlier this year.
Worse, they’ve been largely unrepentant and avoided the wrath of fans when a pandemic-shortened season was played in empty ballparks.
“I know a lot of people are mad,” Correa said after the Astros swept the Minnesota Twins in the first round. “I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?”
They could say the Astros made the postseason with a 29-31 record, sneaking in only because the field was expanded to a cumbersome 16 teams to create more television revenue for team owners.
Baseball could have used a feel-good story in October after a season defined by manufactured crowd noise, quirky rules, and a constant fear the pandemic would drag it all down. Instead, it gets the villainous Astros four wins away from advancing to their third World Series in four years.
The Tampa Bay Rays, who haven’t been to the Series since 2008, stand in their way.
Houston even got an extra day off before the ALCS by eliminating the Oakland Athletics in four games.
No one person can mitigate all that. But Dusty Baker comes close.
The 71-year-old Baker took on the task of managing the Astros in January after A.J. Hinch was suspended and subsequently fired for failing to corral the 2017 team.
The Astros are the fifth team Baker has guided to the postseason in 23 years as a manager, a record. But his only World Series was with the Giants in 2002, a seven-game loss against the Angels.
Baker’s 1,892 victories are 15th all time. Twelve of the 14 men ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame. Bruce Bochy and Gene Mauch are only exceptions and Bochy is a sure bet for the Hall given his three championships with the Giants.
After not managing for two years, Baker did well to coax the Astros into the postseason. Injuries led to the bullpen being rebuilt with rookies, first-time closer Ryan Pressly, and Reds castoff Brooks Raley.
The rotation has so far survived the loss of Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery after one start.
The Astros averaged 4.65 runs during the regular season, just above the league average. But they have scored 42 runs in seven playoff games. Their vast postseason experience has paid off.
“Better late than never. We have some guys swinging the bat now. It feels good to score some runs,” Baker said.
Baker’s knowledge and unruffled demeanor were a good match for a team that needed leadership out of a scandal.
“I think that they closed the circle and got into each other,” Baker said. “It made them closer … I’m glad for the whole organization and the players. Some guys go their whole career without this feeling of jubilation.”
The Astros say they’re not trying to prove their many detractors wrong.
“Absolutely not,” Correa said. “We’re motivated because we want to win. We want to be able to bring another championship to the city of Houston. We know what it feels like, so we want to be able to have that feeling once again. 2017 was such a special year celebrating with the fans in Houston. The thing that motivates is to get to feel that again, to be able to win another championship. We’re one step closer.”
Said outfielder Michael Brantley: “I don’t know if we made any certain statements. I know that we played great baseball and that’s the most important thing.”
But the Astros are gradually proving that they can win without banging garbage cans. Houston may not have the pitching to win eight more games, but it is one of four teams that has a shot.
“Long, tough road. But we’re halfway there,” Baker said. “I’m thankful and happy, but I still have some happiness left to get.”
PRICE YOU PAY?
Big free agents may not fit Sox
The Red Sox ostensibly have money to spend to improve their roster and history suggests ownership will react to a last-place finish with a splashy signing or two.
But signing a qualified free agent would mean forfeiting their second-highest draft pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money. A second qualified free agent would cost their third-highest draft pick and another $500,000 on the international side.
The second pick of the Sox would be roughly No. 40 overall at the moment. Given what we know of Chaim Bloom’s commitment to building young depth, it’s hard to imagine him giving up that pick unless he believes one player can turn a last-place team into an instant contender.
Trevor Bauer, for instance, is sure to receive a qualifying offer from the Reds. He also has said he plans to take only a one-year deal. What’s more valuable to the Sox at this stage of Bloom’s plan, one year of Bauer at a high price or a good prospect?
As good as Bauer is, he’s not turning that team around alone.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ The Sox need a second baseman unless you’re sold on Christian Arroyo hitting .240 in September for a last-place team. But don’t expect DJ LeMahieu to flip sides in the rivalry.
The Yankees are committed to retaining LeMahieu, who will be a free agent after the World Series.
“If you add up the last two years in Major League Baseball, he’s on the short list of short lists for being the best player in the sport — he’s been that impactful,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “In the biggest moments, he always seems to deliver. He’s just been a great player for us. We’ll see what happens moving forward, but I hope he’s a Yankee for a long time.”
LeMahieu has said he loves the atmosphere around the Yankees.
▪ Gavin Casas, the younger brother of Red Sox prospect Triston Casas, is Vanderbilt’s top freshman. The 6-foot-3-inch power hitter can play first or third.
▪ The Pawtucket Red Sox will say goodbye to 78-year-old McCoy Stadium next weekend with a final celebration.
The event starts Thursday and will run through Sunday. It will include kids running the bases, high school baseball and softball players taking batting practice on the field, dining on the field, and much more.
The event will conclude with a community Unity Fest in partnership with Black Lives Matter Rhode Island.
Go to PawSox.com for information and to register.
Epstein committed to Cubs for now
Theo Epstein just completed his ninth season as president of the Cubs, the same number he spent as general manager of the Red Sox. He is under contract for 2021.
But it’s uncertain what will happen from there. Epstein, who turns 47 in December, remains committed to the idea that it’s better to leave early than to stay late.
“I’ve been transparent about my feeling that after a certain period of time, there can be real benefit for both an individual leader and for the organization for some change,” Epstein said. “I’ve not backed away [from that]. I mentioned it the first day I was a Cub, and again when I signed my second contract. I’m not going to run away from those feelings, but I am also as invested in the Chicago Cubs as our leader in baseball operations today as I was at any point in the last nine years.”
The Cubs broke their drought with the 2016 championship, one of five playoff appearances they’ve made in Epstein’s tenure. The team also has invested heavily in improvements in and around Wrigley Field. By any measure, he’s done what they hired him to do.
Epstein said his drive is to improve the team for next season. But there is a clear sense that will be it for him in Chicago.
“Given the things I’m on record with about the benefits of change at a certain point, it just means that you have to be smart in discussing the timing and nature of a transition because it’s inevitable at some point,” he said.
So, what would come next? Fixing another moribund franchise is something he has checked off twice. My guess would be something entirely out of baseball aimed at the betterment of society, building an expansion team from scratch, or putting together a group to own a team.
Menhart takes fall in Washington
Paul Menhart worked 13 years for the Nationals as a minor league pitching coach, doing an important job consistently well if you ask Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, and many other players he helped guide up the ladder.
Menhart, who played at Fitch High in Groton, Conn., before embarking on his professional career, is particularly good at teaching pitchers how to command a changeup, a pitch that for many prospects is difficult to master.
“Paul’s one of the best coaches I’ve had,” Strasburg said. “He did a lot for me after I got drafted.”
Menhart’s reward, or really more of a challenge, was a promotion to the major league staff on May 1 last season. The Nationals were 12-16 with a 4.95 ERA at the time. They went 81-53 the rest of the way with a 4.13 ERA and went on to win the World Series.
The Nationals, beset by injuries, missed the playoffs this season. Manager Davey Martinez received a contract extension but Menhart did not. He was fired.
Martinez called Menhart after the season to say the Nationals wanted an older, more-experienced pitching coach. But general manager Mike Rizzo told him the truth a day later: Martinez wanted his own guy.
Menhart was the organization’s choice to become pitching coach last season. Now that Martinez has a new deal, he wants to pick his own staff.
“What I got from Mike Rizzo is that [Martinez] wanted this time around the chance to pick more of his own coaches. And I totally get that. I initially wasn’t told that,” Menhart told the Washington Post.
Menhart wasn’t offered a chance to stay in the organization, which is probably just as well given the way he was treated by Martinez. His track record in player development should lead to other opportunities.
“I’ve always been interested in helping guys get better. After getting a taste of the World Series, it’s kind of difficult saying I wouldn’t want to take a crack at that with somebody else,” Menhart said. “But it definitely wouldn’t be settling for anything if I went back to the minor leagues. I want a job. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I love.”
The death of Hall of Famer Whitey Ford on Friday brought to mind an appearance he made at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut years ago with Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle. The trio told stories about the old days, signed autographs, and took questions from some local reporters. Ford, who had a 2.71 ERA in 22 World Series starts, was asked if he resented the money modern players made given all his success. “I was born in New York, grew up in New York, and just wanted to play baseball. I’d have played for the Yankees for free,” he said. Mantle then laughed. “Don’t say that,” he said. “They’ll ask for it back.” … Jon Shestakofsky of the Hall of Fame pointed out that the 5-10 Ford and 5-11 Pedro Martinez are the only Hall of Fame pitchers of the post World War II era under 6 feet tall. They also rank first and second in winning percentage in that same time … The Cardinals finished 12th in the National League in scoring and last in home runs. Past decisions have come back to bite them. St. Louis dealt Luke Voit to the Yankees at the 2018 trade deadline and he has hit 57 homers since. It let Marcell Ozuna walk in free agency and he led the NL with 18 homers and 56 RBIs for the Braves this season. The Cardinals then traded Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay in January. He homered seven times in 64 at-bats this season, then connected three more times in the first three games of the Division Series against the Yankees … An oddity of pandemic baseball: As the Yankees and Rays were playing at Petco Park in the Division Series, there were three days Padres radio broadcasters also were at the park calling the Padres-Dodgers series in Houston from their booth on the press box level … Is there a point the Yankees would consider non-tendering or trading Gary Sanchez? He has 62 home runs and 154 RBIs the last three seasons, but he’s an all-or-nothing hitter given his inability to put the ball in play (a .296 OBP since 2018) and unwillingness to go the other way against a shift. His catching is a problem, too. That Kyle Higashioka started five of the seven games in the first two rounds of the playoffs is a sign Sanchez is expendable … One suggestion to TBS now that it has a long-term deal with MLB: Let the game breathe a little. Its announcers seem bent on explaining basic aspects of the game as though the audience is new to the sport … Braves pitching in the postseason: 49 innings, 30 hits, 5 earned runs, 9 walks, 59 strikeouts. Their offense is exciting, but Max Fried and that pitching staff could give the Dodgers a hard time … One interesting aspect of the League Championship Series: Both matchups will be teams that haven’t played each other since last season. In a year when so many teams trimmed back their professional scouting departments, having something other than statistics to build game plans around will be valuable … Happy birthday to Pat Dodson, who is 61. A big hitter and good fielder at Pawtucket, Dodson was lined up to replace Bill Buckner at first base but couldn’t replicate his success in the majors. He played 52 games for the Red Sox from 1986-88 and hit .202, never quite getting a chance to establish himself. Dodson was out of baseball after the 1990 and became a teacher and coach in Oklahoma. Mike Fiore is 76. The outfielder and first baseman was with the Sox from 1970-71.